Singing, teaching, conducting
In the broadest possible terms: I sing first, then teach others to sing. This seems to me an unassailable progression; many choral conductors would lay claim to some version of the same thing. I think our training and experience in the first two, greatly impacts the success of the third.
By the time I reached college, I wanted badly to sing well; then, and later, I sought out the best teachers, coaches, and accompanists I could find. They worked mightily to help me make the most of my instrument; they taught me about the expressive possibilities inherent in the human voice; they greatly broadened and deepened my instinctive range. They introduced me to great composers and vocal repertoire; they helped me with languages; they guided me through questions of national and historical style; and they taught me to perform effectively in public. I studied voice, participated in summer programs and master classes, and performed a broad range of solo repertoire regularly, for more than twenty-five years; it’s amazing how much one learns, and absorbs, through such an apprenticeship. No one ever told me I had a great voice, or a career right over the horizon; but my desire to learn what I could about the craft, was always respected.
My teachers taught me, through example, how to teach. I admired them, and emulated them. Of course, one learns through doing. I suspect no one teaches voice effectively, until they have been trying to do so for several years; but along the way, if one has interest and aptitude, one learns to deal with voices, to care about them, to help them. After three years of college teaching, I chose to do graduate work in vocal performance and pedagogy, rather than in conducting-- and I felt, still feel, that this was the right choice for me: I knew I would always be teaching people to sing, for one reason or another, and that this would be the root, the basis, of anything else I did.
Singing also led me to choirs. As a child, I sang in choirs—through community, church, and school-- because that was where one sang; where else? Solo singing did not present itself as an option; singing was all about working with other people. I loved choirs, and choral repertoire; I attended a college which specialized in choral performance; and I sought choral opportunities wherever I happened to live or work. This early training and experience was important for me; it prepared me sing later on in wonderful choirs, under extraordinary conductors and preparators. One way or another, I have sung most of the major works in the standard choral/orchestral repertoire, in good performances; and I have sung literally thousands of smaller works, under perhaps hundreds of conductors, some of those pieces many times, under many circumstances. I have known many of those conductors personally; have observed and experienced their methods; have been able to evaluate them (and their effect on me and my fellow singers), learn from them, pick and choose amongst their habits and techniques. Again, for me—this was the way to learn to conduct choirs: an old-style apprenticeship/journeyman situation.
As I have grown older, I do less singing, and more conducting. For a certain period, I was very conflicted about this; finally I just let it happen, and that has been for the best. Like a sponge which has absorbed so much, for so long—that which has been absorbed starts leaking out, and it is best to take advantage of that. I completely agree with something Robert Shaw used to say-- that the very heart of choral singing is this miracle: that people singing together in a choir, are so much more, so much better, that the sum of all their talents and energy. Choral singing, for me, is a model for the way we should live, the way we should conduct ourselves in all aspects of our communal lives-- commit ourselves to worthy projects, respect one another and reconcile our differences, work together to be so much more than we could ever be, otherwise. Strangely, people don’t see this and do it on their own; someone has to point the way, someone has to put up a sign that says, Be here Wednesday night at 7. And let’s try to sing better.